Most commercial flights jet through the skies between 30,000 and 40,000 feet. Okay, now imagine going even higher, but without any sort of engine. That’s what Jim Payne and Morgan Sandercock did on September 3 when they set a world record for highest unpowered flight, soaring over the Andes to 52,172 feet in the Perlan 2 glider.
The glider was towed to 10,500 feet by a powered plane, then released to fly silently on its own. Without an engine to help them climb, the pilots relied on a phenomena known as mountain waves. Winds that blow over mountain ranges generate waves of air on the leeward side, which gliders can ride. But these waves aren’t strong enough alone to carry the Perlan 2 to that world record altitude. In this case, the team has to wait for something called the stratospheric polar night jet, which are strong winter winds that trap cold polar air and form polar vortices. For this flight, the Perlan 2 team flew out of the airport in El Calafate, Argentina, where it’s winter and the Southern Hemisphere polar vortex is nearby.
A series of polar night jet waves took Payne and Sandercock up to the record-setting altitude, which beats the previous mark of 50,722 feet set by Perlan 1 glider pilots back in 2006. And Perlan 2 isn’t done—it’s engineered to go even higher, with a wingspan of 84 feet, the weight of a 1967 Volkswagen Beetle, and a cockpit that is pressurized with an oxygen rebreather system for the pilots. The carbon fiber glider is designed to reach 90,000 feet, which would break the record for any wing-borne flight.
The Airbus-sponsored project is about more than records, though. It’s trying to fly so high to better understand mountain waves, which can affect climate models and commercial flights that may one day fly at such altitudes. Conditions at these altitudes also are close to atmospheric conditions on the surface of Mars, where the air is very, very thin and cold, so Perlan glider designs could inform the design of spacecraft shuttling people to the red planet. Setting impressive records is just a layover.